Diabolical Mimicry


By: GakuseiDon

Last Updated: Oct 2008


A common view on the Internet is that early Church Fathers were so disturbed by the similarities between pagan myths and Christianity that they resorted to claiming 'diabolical mimicry' and 'plagiarism in advance', i.e. the devil inspired pagans to 'copy' aspects of Christianity in advance, in order to discredit Christianity. This article looks at the writings of the early Church Fathers usually cited to see if this view is accurate. I find that, in fact, rather than being disturbed by the similarities, early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Tertullian were eager to find similarities for their own apologetic purposes. 




Section 1: Diabolical Mimicry References in early Church Fathers

        1.1 Irenaeus

        1.2 Tertullian

        1.3 Justin Martyr

Section 2: Conclusion

Section 3: Footnotes

Section 4: Bibliography




The term 'diabolical mimicry' was popularized by Freke & Gandy in their book "The Jesus Mysteries" [1]. 'Diabolical mimicry' refers to the idea that early Christians, recognising that Christianity had similarities to earlier pagan beliefs, desperately tried to explain these similarities away by declaring that the devil, looking into the future, inspired pagans to copy Christianity. As Freke & Gandy explain:


Often 'diabolical mimicry' is tied to the Gospel stories, as is typically expressed by a popular website:


These two quotes appear to be the source of many similar claims on the Internet. The three writers usually cited as using 'diabolical mimicry' are Irenaeus, Tertullian and Justin Martyr. I examine their writings below to see how they used 'diabolical mimicry'. I also briefly look at whether the similarities given by the authors offer evidence for 'copycatting', i.e. that Christians 'copied' or adopted themes from pagan myths.


Section 1: Diabolical Mimicry References in early Church Fathers


1.1 Irenaeus


Irenaeus was thought to be the Bishop of Lyons, and wrote around 180 C.E. To my surprise, I wasn't able to find any comments by Irenaeus relating to 'diabolical mimicry'. Though there are many claims that Irenaeus invoked 'diabolical mimicry' -- usually with Freke & Gandy as the source -- none of them give any examples from Irenaeus, nor cite his specific writings. Freke & Gandy themselves do not quote or cite Irenaeus on this subject, beyond merely claiming that he used 'diabolical mimicry'.




Despite reading through Irenaeus's extant writings, I was unable to find any examples of Irenaeus using the 'diabolical mimicry' argument at all. As far as I can see, those websites that claim Irenaeus invoked 'diabolical mimicry' simply repeat Freke & Gandy's claim that he did do so.



1.2 Tertullian


1.2.1. Background


Tertullian wrote around 200 C.E. He wrote many works devoted to combating heresies. Ironically, he himself was later denounced as a heretic. At the time he wrote the number of Christians had increased significantly throughout the Roman Empire. As he stated in his "Apology":


The 'diabolical mimicry' comment often attributed to Tertullian comes from Freke & Gandy, though curiously the citation that Freke & Gandy give is to "Quoted in Kingsland, W. (1937)", rather than to any actual passage by Tertullian. Freke & Gandy write the following:


Freke & Gandy's "quote from Kingsland" is in fact a loose paraphrase from a much longer passage in Tertullian's "Prescription against Heretics", which was written to reveal the fallacies behind heretical beliefs and to expose their source: the devil. The passage that Kingsland's quote appears to be based on reads as follows:


The focus here, as it was throughout "Prescription against Heretics", is on Christian heresies. In the passage above, Tertullian was attempting to show that heretics are as much in error as pagans in their beliefs. Just as heretics have elements in common with Christianity, so did the pagans. And that was because the heretics' erroneous interpretations and the pagans' came from the same source: the devil.


1.2.2. Plagiarism by anticipation?


There is no sense of "plagiarism by anticipation" in this quote. It's clear that Tertullian was claiming that the devil was imitating existing Jewish law with regards to sacrifices, as well as encouraging heretics to pervert the "divine things and Christian saints" and make their own interpretations. But the devil appears to be portrayed as copying existing documents and existing interpretations, rather than anticipating the future.


1.2.3. 'Desperately' trying to explain away similarities?


Tertullian certainly suggested "diabolical mimicry" in the quoted passage, though "diabolical perversion" is probably a more accurate description. The devil induced perverted copying of the following:


However, Tertullian was not trying to "desperately explain away the similarities" at all. In fact, he appeared to be using vaguely worded examples ("oblation of bread", "an image of a resurrection") in order to create the similarities.


1.2.4. Evidence of 'Copycating'?


Of course, from a 'copycat' perspective it doesn't matter whether Tertullian was trying to promote similarities or trying to explain them away. Either way, Tertullian acknowledged that there were similarities. But do his examples provide support for Christian 'copycatting' of pagan ideas? There is little evidence that they do. Some of his examples -- baptism, redemption of sins -- can be traced back to Judaism. Others -- oblation of bread, emphasis on virginity -- were common to many cultures at that time. "Marking the foreheads of soldiers" (see Footnote 1) and "the administration of Christ's sacraments" may suggest possible pagan influence on Christianity, but these rites were almost certainly later developments within Christianity.


It is unclear to what "an image of a resurrection" refers. From what we understand of Mithraism today, there is no indication that Mithras ever died, much less resurrected. "The image" perhaps refers to the rejuvenation of the earth by the blood of the cosmic bull that Mithras slays, or even to "the mimicry of martyrdom" that an initiate must undergo (by rejecting a crown at the point of a sword -- see Footnote 1). The vaguely worded example suggests how eager Tertullian was to create the similarities between paganism and Christian beliefs, thereby strengthening his case that heretics, whom also held to similar beliefs, were deluded by the devil..


1.2.5. Conclusion


Tertullian used 'diabolical mimicry' to explain similarities between heresies, paganism and Christianity. He wasn't trying to explain the similarities away; on the contrary, he was trying to show they existed in order to make the point that heretics and pagans were inspired by the same source: the devil. As Tertullian concluded, no-one ought to doubt that "there is any real difference between heresies and idolatry, seeing that they appertain both to the same author and the same work that idolatry does." The examples he provided can be traced back to Judaism, or to common cultural motifs, or are too vague to provide evidence for the Christ Myth 'copycat' view.  



1.3 Justin Martyr


1.3.1. Background


Justin Martyr was one of the earliest extant Christian apologists. Justin spent some time studying pagan philosophy before converting, which was probably around 130 C.E. He wrote around 150-160 C.E, and was martyred around 165 C.E. 


While Justin was a prolific writer of letters, he is best known for three: the First Apology (addressed to the Emperor of the day); the Second Apology (addressed to the Roman Senate); and a Dialogue with Trypho (a debate between Justin and a Jewish philosopher). 


At the time that Justin wrote, Christianity was regarded as a 'pernicious superstition'. Pagans accused Christians of eating human flesh during secret rites, and of holding incestuous orgies. It was possible to be arrested for just declaring oneself a Christian. Justin, like other apologists of that century, wrote letters to the Roman Emperor and the Senate to argue against this persecution. He argued that Christians were blameless, and that the accusations against them were baseless rumors. In fact, he argued, these rumors had a sinister source... demons!


In Justin's day, pagans and Christians believed that the world contained countless spirits floating in the air around them. For pagans, these spirits were "daemons", some evil and some good. Daemons were intermediaries between humans on earth and the gods in heaven, and were responsible for many things: blessings and curses, messages from the gods, good and bad weather, and so on. Evil spirits encouraged men to evil actions, and good spirits were guardians who protected against misfortunate. 


For Christians, these spirits were generally considered to be evil, i.e. "demons". Demons loved to spread malicious gossip and untruths. In his First Apology, Justin linked the persecution of Christians to the persecution suffered by the highly respected philosopher Socrates. In both cases, demons encouraged evil men 'who rejoice in iniquity' to slander good people:


In the same Apology, Justin went on to point out that some of the more horrific and vulgar tales involving Jupiter and other Roman gods were also inspired by demons (emphasis added):


It may seem strange to find someone writing to a pagan Roman Emperor, appealing for clemency, and then telling him that the myths he followed were inspired by wicked demons. Little wonder that Justin earned his title of "Martyr" -- Justin "Deathwish" seems more appropriate, at first glance! 


However, Justin may not have been as suicidal as initially appears. Many Romans had a euhemeristic view of their gods. They believed that gods like Jupiter and Hercules were in fact historical figures around whom legends had developed, though some believed that these historical figures had died and become (good) daemons or even ascended to heaven. Justin's purpose in his Apologies was to answer charges against Christianity rather than convert his audience. Therefore, as even many Romans were embarrassed by the more lurid and vulgar tales about their gods, Justin probably felt that his pagan readers were sympathetic to the idea that the same evil daemons who had inspired lies about their gods and Socrates may have also spread baseless lies about Christianity.

Two other charges against Christianity that Justin had to address were on its 'newness' and its 'barbarous' nature. New sects were regarded suspiciously by the Romans, so early apologists stressed Christianity's "antiquity" via its Jewish roots. As Karen Armstrong points out in her book The History of God, the Roman ethos was strictly conservative, and Christians were regarded with contempt as a sect of fanatics who had committed the cardinal sin of breaking with the parent faith [9]. Early Christians defended themselves against these charges by referring often to the Hebrew Scriptures. Hebrew writings' long historical roots were known by the Romans, and as Armstrong notes, would have impressed the Romans of that time. (The Emperor Augustus actually prescribed penalties for anyone destroying Hebrew holy books). Thus, in their appeals to their pagan audience including a pagan Roman Emperor and Senate -- early apologists like Justin often quoted ancient Hebrew prophets. Indeed, in the face of pagan accusations that Christianity was just some barbarous new sect, Justin stated that, not only did Christianity (via the writings of the Hebrew prophets) predate Greek philosophy, the Greeks actually copied from the Hebrews! In his First Apology, Justin demonstrated how the doctrines of Plato and Christians agreed, even accusing Plato of copying from Moses:


No-one today considers the above 'copycat' examples as evidence that Plato copied from the ancient Hebrews. But Justin was attempting to convince the pagans of his day that these similarities existed in order to provide Christianity with some 'philosophical' respectability. Note that Justin was not 'desperately trying to explain these similarities away', but, like Tertullian, his argument was dependent on creating these similarities.


To defend against the charge of barbarism, Justin adopted a 'philosophical' approach to his defense of Christianity, appealing to his audience's love of philosophy. Indeed, he addressed his First Apology to the Emperor Titus and "to his son Verissimus the Philosopher, and to Lucius the Philosopher". As Justin points out to his worthy audience: "[r]eason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless".


So, some critical themes that appeared in Justin's apologies:


1.  Christians were blameless and shouldn't be persecuted. They were being defamed by demons. These demons were also responsible for vulgar tales told about Jupiter and the other gods, as well as good pagans like Socrates. 

2.  Christianity was older than Greek religions via its Jewish roots. In fact, famous Greek philosophers like Plato copied from the Hebrews. Justin supplied examples to demonstrate this.

3.  Christianity was not a mere superstitious belief, but was backed by a sound philosophy. Justin appealed to the Emperor and members of his family as fellow philosophers, using quotes from prophets in the Old Testament to support Christianity's 'sound philosophical' approach.


1.3.2. How Justin Martyr's 'diabolical mimicry' argument is presented


Justin Martyr is the Church Father most often quoted when 'diabolical mimicry' is asserted, though he never used that expression himself. Curiously, though many people know that Justin used 'diabolical mimicry' to 'desperately explain away' similarities between Christianity and pagan myths, the similarities he cited are rarely given. There are two famous quotes from Justin's writings that are often used. They can be found in the Christ Myth documentary movie The God Who Wasn't There. Justin's quotes are displayed on background slides while the narrator speaks:


The film also displays a timeline showing a mischievous little red devil tripping backwards in time, highlighting Satan's ability to foresee Christ's activities in advance. The documentary's narrator solemnly concludes:


To summarize how Justin's 'diabolical mimicry' argument is usually presented:

  1. Pagans saw the similarities between Christianity and pagan myths and objected that Christians were copying from the pagans.
  2. Justin 'desperately' tried to explain away similarities between pagan myths and Christianity by claiming that the devil foresaw Christ and counterfeited them in advance.
  3. Christians nowadays offer the same defence. 


But what does Justin actually say? 


1.3.3. 'The devil has imitated the prophecy'


Despite claims to the contrary, Justin did not depict the devil looking into the future to copy Christ. Similar to his argument that Plato copied from Moses, Justin argued that Greek writers copied from the prophecies of the Hebrew prophets. As before, Justin was making use of two themes: (1) the Christians (via their Hebrew roots) actually had beliefs that were older than the Romans (via their Greek roots); (2) the devil inspired some of the Greek myths.


Let's look at one of the quotes from the movie again:


What does Justin mean when he says that the devil has "imitated the prophecy"? Interestingly enough, this quote is yet another paraphrase by a Christ Myth proponent of an early Christian writer. The paraphrase has neatly removed the section involving Hebrew writings. The full quote is as follows:


As before, Justin was not trying to explain away parallels between Christ and the pagan gods, but was clearly doing the opposite: he is trying to convince the pagans that the parallels existed in the first place. Again, Justin was suggesting that Greek myths copied from Christianity via its Hebrew roots. It was Christianity that predated the Greek myths. However, the parallels were so weak that the pagans didn't recognize them. But, as Justin explained, there was a reason for that:: the devil got them wrong!: 


At a time when Christianity was regarded as a barbarous new religion, Justin was trying to convince the pagans that parallels existed, and that pagan myths were misunderstood copies of stories in Hebrew writings. It was those pesky demons who misunderstood, of course - the same ones who had framed Socrates and created lurid tales about Jupiter.


1.3.4. 'We propound nothing new or different'


What, then, of the second quote used by Christ Myth proponents?


Note: Justin wasn't claiming that the sons of Jupiter were also crucified, as some have suggested. In the very next sentence, Justin went on to describe the various deaths of the sons of Jupiter: by lightening strike, by dismemberment, by fire. The commonality was the violent nature of the death, followed by an ascension into heaven.


Again, we can see that Justin was not trying to explain away these similarities. "We propound nothing new or different from what you believe!" would be strange words to use if he were indeed disturbed by the similarities. Plainly, it was the opposite: he was trying to convince a skeptical pagan audience that there were parallels in the first place.


1.3.5. Other similarities offered by Justin


One curious item worth highlighting is that, though Justin is often cited as providing support that early Christians recognised that there were similarities between Christianity and pagan myths, many of his examples are never actually used by Christ Myth proponents. In this section, we look at some of the similarities presented by Justin. 


In the following example, we can see the stretching that Justin was required to do to find similarities between Hebrew Scriptures and pagan myths. He equated the story of Jesus riding a foal and ascending into heaven to the tale of Bellerophon ascending to heaven on a flying horse (my emphasis throughout below):


Another example that is never repeated by Christ Myth proponents:


It's hard to imagine even the devil not being embarrassed by inspiring that parallel. But Justin did present examples that are more suggestive of 'copycatting'. Here is one such example:


This is a closer parallel. The number of gods "born of a virgin" can be counted on one hand (the numerous claims on websites notwithstanding). Perseus is one of those. His mother had been locked away since she was a young girl, and Jupiter had come down in a golden shower to impregnate her. But given how virginity has been prized in cultures throughout time, one wonders how to identify any one influence. Such parallels offer intriguing hints, but require more investigation to substantiate them.


1.3.6. Conclusion


Justin, like Tertullian, was not 'desperately trying to explain similarities away'. His case was dependent on finding similarities, and convincing a sceptical audience that they existed in the first place. The reason that pagans didn't recognise the similarities, according to Justin, was because the devil got them wrong.


Regardless of Justin's motive for finding similarities, does his 'diabolical mimicry' argument provide evidence for the 'copycat' theory? Some hint at universal themes shared across cultures, but in general they offer no more support for Christians copying from pagans, than they offer support for Justin's claim that pagans copied from Hebrew Scriptures.



Section 2: Conclusion


Could pagan myths have influenced Christianity, either directly or through Christianity's Hebrew roots? It's not something that should be ruled out-of-hand. But, if 'diabolical mimicry' is appealed to as support, then the following should be noted:

  1. The Early Church fathers examined above were not embarrassed by the parallels between paganism and Christianity. On the contrary, they were eager to show that similarities existed.
  2. There is no evidence that they thought that 'diabolical mimicry' included the idea that the devil looked into the future to copy Christ. Instead, according to Justin, the devil copied the prophecies of the Hebrew prophets, but got them wrong.
  3. Although Justin's use of 'diabolical mimicry' is often cited as evidence of the 'copycat' theory, the examples he gives are rarely given. Usually only two quotes from Justin are offered, and they are often paraphrases. Examples like Justin's parallel between Jesus ("strong as a giant to run his course") and Hercules ("strong, and had journeyed over the whole earth") are never reproduced as evidence for 'copycatting', and for good reason. 
  4. None of the parallels offered by Tertullian's and Justin's 'diabolical mimicry' argument yield strong data for evidence of the 'copycat' theory. Some similarities can be traced back to Christianity's Jewish roots. Others represent common motifs common to many cultures. At best, some examples offer hints that would require further research to substantiate.


As a final note, the excellent Urban Legends Reference website, Snopes, has a page devoted to the 'amazing coincidences' between Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. After examining the parallels, the writer concludes:


There is no doubt that there are similarities between Christianity and pagan beliefs. There are thousands of pagan gods and myths to choose from, and by using vaguely worded comparisons, finding similarities becomes a subjective exercise, limited only by the imagination of the reader. Using this approach, it isn't difficult to find similarities between two marginally-related sets of data. In fact, Tertullian used such an approach to show that heretics and pagans err in similar fashion. Similarly, Justin Martyr used this approach to show that Plato copied from Moses and the Greeks copied from Hebrew Scriptures. Finally, Christ Myth proponents use the same approach today to show that Christians copied from pagans. None of them present strong cases, based on the information available. Why do so many find this approach so convincing? I agree with the Snope's author's conclusion: It helps to 'make sense of our world, to maintain a feeling that our universe is orderly and can be understood'.



Section 3: Footnotes


Footnote 1:


Tertullian gives further details on how the 'mark on the forehead' is given in his book "De Corona", Chap 15:


The mark on the forehead appears to have been created by a crown being put upon the initiate's head. I'm unaware of anything similar in early Christianity, and this is another indication of how Tertullian used vaguely worded comparisons to bolster his argument. The 'image of a resurrection' may also be a comparison to the 'mimicry of martyrdom' that Tertullian referred to in the same passage.



Section 4: Bibliography


English translations of the early Church Fathers are available from the Early Christian Writings website:



1.  Freke & Gandy, The Jesus Mysteries, Thorsons, 2000

2.  ibid, p. 7

3.  Religious Tolerance, "Parallels between Christianity and ancient Pagan religions",


4.  Tertullian, "Apology", Chap 37

5.  Freke & Gandy, ibid, p. 34

6.  Tertullian, "Prescription against Heretics", Chap 15

7.  Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 5

8.  Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 21

9.  Karen Armstrong, History of God, Mandarin Paperback, 1993, p. 108

10. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap 8

11. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap 64

12. Movie: God who wasn't there, 22:40 min from start

13. Movie: God who wasn't there, 23:30 min from start

14. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 69

15. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap 54

16. Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chap 21

17. Urban Legends Reference (Snopes), http://www.snopes.com/history/american/lincoln-kennedy.asp



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